George D. Pappas, former ASCB President, celebrated neuroanatomist, and electron microcopy (EM) pioneer who learned EM at the hands of ASCB founder Keith Porter, died August 12 at Calvary Hospital, Bronx, NY. According to family, he was 88 years old.
Pappas served as ASCB President for the 1974–1975 term following five years as ASCB Secretary. He finished a long academic career in 2008 at the University of Illinois, Chicago, College of Medicine, where he was for many years professor and head of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology. Before Chicago, Pappas was professor of anatomy at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, a post he took after a decade at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.
In 2003, the American Association of Anatomists awarded Pappas its Henry Gray Award, the highest honor in anatomical science, declaring, “Dr. Pappas was first to describe the double limiting nuclear membrane and the fact that it enclosed the nucleus and has an ordered array of pores.” Pappas was also singled out for his early EM studies describing electrical synapses and revealing the dynamic nature of extracellular pathways in the brain.
Born in Portland, ME, Pappas took his bachelor’s degree in 1948 at Bowdoin College and his PhD in zoology in 1952 from Ohio State University, where he studied the cytoplasm in Amoebidae. But it was at summer classes at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA, that Pappas first met scientists who called their new field of study “cell biology.” Looking for a postdoc in cell biology, Pappas went to see Keith Porter at what was still the Rockefeller Institute in New York City. Porter liked his background in amoeba culture, Pappas recalled,1 but thought that Pappas needed to learn the revolutionary technique of EM before pursuing any other research interest. “Porter’s approach to the laboratory was such that he did not turn me over to a technician to show me things,” Pappas wrote. “He wanted to show me himself, and he had a marvelous pair of hands.”
Thus the founding father of modern cell biology personally instructed Pappas on how to isolate sections of chicken dermis and how to bleed roosters through wing veins. “One day, the rooster got loose and Keith, upset, turned to me and said, ‘I did that to show you what happens if you don’t hold the rooster right.’ I got the message.” Pappas was a visiting researcher and then a postdoc at Rockefeller from 1952–1956 before his first faculty appointment at Columbia.
In his own lab, Pappas was not interested in hands-on training, recalls Charles Meshul, a graduate student in the Pappas lab in Chicago. His mentor relied on his first-rate EM technicians to teach technique in his lab while hiring young, exciting investigators to fill out his department, says Meshul, who is now research biologist and director of the Electron Microscopy Facility at the VA in Portland, OR, and professor in behavioral neuroscience and pathology at the Oregon Health Sciences University. Yet Pappas had a major impact on his career and his approach to science, says Meshul. “I followed in his footsteps. I went into academia and moved up the ranks. And I still do EM.”
Meshul continues, “There are two thing George told me which I continue to think about today and pass onto my graduate students and assistants. He said if you were going to publish an EM photograph, it has to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. He was also one of the early advocates of correlating structure to function. Whenever we do any kind of functional study, I always try to do that.”
Besides the ASCB, Pappas was active in a wide range of scientific groups, including the Society for Neuroscience and the Harvey Society. He was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of the New York Academy of Sciences, and of the Institute of Medicine of Chicago. At MBL, Pappas was a corporation member and served on the board of trustees from 1975 to 1981. A prolific writer, he published nearly 250 papers in his career and served on a half dozen editorial boards.
And Pappas knew all the legendary names from the early days of EM and cell biology, says Meshul. “It’s the end of an era. He and Porter and Palade and all of those people were the movers and shakers of the field. All of a sudden, George is gone and I’m the next generation. It’s a daunting thought.”
1Pappas G, p. 209, Entering an Unseen World, Moberg CL, ed. (2012). New York: Rockefeller University Press.